Bengals Don't Stray Far From Senior Bowl Roots

Paul Brown (middle) coaching at the 1954 Senior Bowl.
Paul Brown (middle) coaching at the 1954 Senior Bowl.

No one has coached in more Senior Bowls or won more of them than Paul Brown. When his Cincinnati Bengals, one of the two NFL teams he founded, coach in the 70th anniversary of the college all-star classic next week they'll be doing it for the same reasons he coached eight straight.

If there were two constants in the 1950s, they were Ike in the White House and P.B. coaching in the NFL championship game, followed quickly by a talent summit in Mobile, Ala., during an effort to re-stock his Cleveland Browns.

"He liked to get close. He liked to be around that influx of players coming into the draft back when it was only seniors. He found it useful," reminisced Bengals president Mike Brown this week.

Paul Brown's son, though, never made it to the Senior Bowl until the next decade as his father's assistant general manager for the Bengals. For Mike Brown, the game remains the closest thing he calls a vacation even though it is very much a week filled with the work of football for his family management team even if the Bengals aren't coaching it. From meeting with coaches and scouts to monitoring two practices a day to hosting a team dinner fraught with charred oysters, Moonpies and other Gulf Shore delicacies, the 84-year-old Brown is always in the middle of it.

"I like being with our guys, our coaches and our scouts and being with the family is something I always enjoy," he said.

After 50-odd years of staying in half a dozen hotels, ranging from downtown Mobile to across the bay in Fairhope on a trip that comes with a glimpse of the retired battleship U.S.S. Alabama, no one knows the flighty Gulf Shore weather better than Mike Brown.

"I've been there when it's been in the teens and I've been there when it's been in the 70s," Brown said. "You have to check the weather and hope it holds up or else you'll bring plenty of clothes you don't want."

During one of those Senior Bowls they were dressed for the stands instead of the practice field, Mike Brown hired a head coach in Marvin Lewis and got his first look at his next franchise quarterback, Heisman Trophy winner Carson Palmer.

"Carson was a wonderful passer," Brown said. "As pretty a passer you'd ever wish to see."

Now 17 years later he's just as busy planning for the trip to the practice field that begins this Sunday and ends with the Jan. 25 game between North and South. Brown already has a coach and Zac Taylor has been assigned to lead a South team they hope is quarterbacked by LSU's Joe Burrow, like Palmer a Heisman Trophy winner the Bengals are eyeing with the No. 1 pick.

They won't know Burrow's plans until after Monday night's national championship game, but Brown has the same Senior Bowl plans he has had for the last six decades even though the game has undergone massive changes. Like everything else associated with the NFL, the Senior Bowl has mushroomed from a charming regional event that teenager Mike Brown had trouble picking up on a radio in Cleveland into a mega monstrosity where practices and the game are beamed live on national TV while doubling as an NFL job fair.

Scouts, general managers, coaches and media are confined to the stands at Ladd Peebles Stadium when they used to be able to roam the sidelines. It's been that way for the last 10 years or so, ever since the spillover of humanity began to collide with the drills. You know you've strayed too far when you're nose to nose with a nose tackle from LSU or back into a linebacker from USC.

Now, each team gets only one or two field passes, although the Bengals get more this year because they're coaching the game.

"I liked it when we could be around the field. I remember when maybe there were just 40 people watching," Brown said. "You would be close to the players and you'd be able to see them as they did drills, especially pass blocking and pass coverage. That was back when they pretty much only filmed the game."

Now, every portion of the practice is on tape, never mind broken down on Twitter by draftnicks and in segments by network analysts. Now everyone wants to get as close as Paul Brown did in the '50s.

For the past few decades the game has been coached by NFL staffs with the worst records that didn't undergo a change. But in the '50s, if the best wanted to do it, they could. Which is how Paul Brown ended up coaching the North in a 12-6 loss two weeks after he coached the Browns to the 1954 NFL championship and the next year he led the South to a 12-2 win two weeks after winning it all again in '55.

But then, the drafts those two years were held two weeks after the Senior Bowl, not three months, so the game was very much on the mind.

Paul Brown (left) holds court at one of his eight Senior Bowls.
Paul Brown (left) holds court at one of his eight Senior Bowls.

"In the old days, the South had the advantage. They loaded up the South roster a little bit," Mike Brown said. "The North team stayed at the old Admiral Semmes Hotel downtown, not quite as flashy as some others that were built over time. When his team won, they took him over to the nice hotel where the South stayed."

After Paul Brown led the North to a 3-1 record from 1952-55, he took the South to 3-1 from 1956-59. It seemed like the game's powers that be wanted more than the best players for the South, so Brown made the move.

"I think that's what my father thought. He won. And he liked coaching the South, anyway, because at that time they always seemed to have so many of the good players," Brown said.

Of course, the Senior Bowl had the best players, period. Players would often play in more than one all-star game back then and the Senior Bowl was the one they wouldn't miss. Now there are so many different all-star games, plus juniors have stolen the spotlight from the seniors and some prospects don't even play in their team's bowl games never mind an all-star game.

But there are constants, too, since the P.B. days. Quarterbacks have always been under the Mobile microscope. Nearly 70 years before Joe Burrow, Paul Brown drafted a quarterback even before he played for him in the Senior Bowl.

He took Boston University junior quarterback Harry Agganis in the first round of the 1952 draft, eligible because he had served a stint in the Marine Corps. Agganis was named the Senior Bowl's MVP in 1953 playing for Brown, but the hometown Red Sox lured him away from Cleveland and football and three years later in June Agganis died of a blood clot during a season he had 11 homers and 51 RBI.

Fast forward to 2003 and Palmer, then keep hitting the button to 2011, when the Bengals did coach the game and needed another franchise quarterback. They got a week-long look at four prospects that would go in the first two rounds. They coached Jake Locker and Colin Kaepernick for the North and defended Andy Dalton and Christian Ponder for the South before picking Dalton a few months later.

Now it looks like the Bengals could not only coach Burrow in Mobile, but also Oregon's Justin Herbert and Oklahoma's Jalen Hurts.

"Two good ones," he said, a Brown back on the South side.

A look at current Bengals players who have participated in the Senior Bowl. The Senior Bowl features the country's best senior collegiate football players and top NFL draft prospects on teams representing the North and South that are coached by the entire coaching staffs of two National Football League teams.